This piece was originally published on Central American News.
At 12 years old, my best friend, whose dad worked at the American Embassy, moved back from El Salvador to Washington D.C. We caught up sporadically as teens and on one occasion we had a text conversation about immigration.
As a US citizen, she viewed immigration as national security — whereas, from my perspective as a child of the post-conflict era in El Salvador, which was subjected to a proxy war during the Cold War, immigration to the United States was always viewed as a human rights issue. My family members received refugee statuses, citizenships, green cards, and Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
Essentially, through my eyes, immigrating to the United States promised safety. That is what I was looking for when I arrived in the U.S. in 2019 on a student visa. Since then, however, my perspective started to change.
The root of my questioning starts at the hopelessness that overwhelms me once in a while for being an immigrant in the U.S. It is a quiet thing that I rarely discuss. This feeling has been amplified by the incessant U.S.travel restrictions and temperamental changes of the U.S. immigration system, and by how these policies now interact with the blocked borders in various countries abroad due to COVID-19.
In the U.S., the Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced, and then withdrew, that international students must leave the country if not attending in-person classes. Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court ordered the administration to start accepting Deferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA). The printing of Green Cards has been delayed, putting permanent residents at risk of being deported. Tourists stranded in the U.S. due to their country’s border closures are in danger of having their visas expire before they are able to go home. Equally and perhaps more alarming are the reports that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) need a $1.2 billion bailout from the government to keep itself from furloughing 13,400 employees. This does not even take into account all kinds of policies aiming at stopping refugees and deporting undocumented people.
My home country of El Salvador has had its airport closed since the lockdown order was announced in March. For those who are stranded in the U.S. like me, the situation is difficult. Avianca, the only airline providing repatriation flights, only offered two flights in July. Just to get on the Salvadoran government's list of citizens who are allowed to reenter El Salvador’s closed border, we have to call the consulate, wait for months, and pay our flights if given a seat in the few planes out of the U.S.
I can see the tension. The Trump Administration is pushing people to leave when it doesn’t have the capacity to carry out the processes, and meanwhile, due to all its rules to regulate the lives of immigrants, many are stranded without a capacity for self-sustenance.
For example, you could say that my status on an F1 student visa provided a sense of both safety for my queer identity and opportunity for my educational development. However, this visa will expire before the airport in El Salvador reopens. After deeply searching and interpreting the USCIS webpage, I filled a form to change my status to a visitor visa. Even though it was confirmed that I could legally stay while this process occurs, I won’t get a notice on the status of the application for 2.5 to 4 months, and potentially even longer. This is without having the ability to work or study. As a consequence, my family has been having to scramble for money to help me out.
These situations are not new. Immigrants have always been seen as an unsolvable problem, their lives held up in the air. In my opinion, it wasn’t until ICE had to reassess international students’ stay in the country that many U.S. citizens woke up to the bullying of the United States immigration system.
Yet, even though I would like to say that the Trump Administration’s play with immigration laws in the context of the pandemic is cruel, it was already brutal before. The reality is that immigration laws can be changed whether you’re in the process of entering, already live in the country, or are nearing the end of your visa. All this power holds us in limbo. COVID-19 has simply put a magnifying lens to this situation.
This topic is no stranger to the conversations that we, immigrants, have quietly, for fear of being deemed ungrateful. They happen over dinner, or with university international services, and at times with our U.S. friends who don’t understand the lingo of the US immigration system. As of late, these conversations have started to take a different tone—one that reflects a sense that the U.S. does not want us here and how deeply that is affecting our decisions and psyches.
I have come to observe that no matter what class of immigrant you are, the immigration system in the U.S. can easily alter your ideas of hope, opportunity, and safety. Even though I have learned by now how to manage the stress that comes with the restrictions of being an immigrant, it is still a shock to my system when I confront a new obstacle like having to spend months unemployed and without financial backing because I’m waiting for a document to arrive. The loneliness of this limbo—not just the one where everyone’s plans have come to a halt, but the one where the government you live under has so much power over you and applies it so arbitrarily—is even more excruciating.
As a final thought, when my family members fled El Salvador as refugees of the war and my school in El Salvador promoted colleges in the U.S., a long-term life up north seemed to be a viable option, even if not a permanent one. Yet I did not expect that the implementation of Trump’s views would cause such a paradigm shift in me. From my perspective, the push by the Trump administration is absolutely challenging the long-held view that the United States is a place for safety and opportunity. Now I question whether I have a place in this country. Definitely, the laws and regulations, and the capricious changes make me feel like I do not.